Earlier this week, we talked with Brenda Ann Kenneally, an independent photojournalist who chronicles coming of age in post-industrial America. Her project, “Upstate Girls: What Became of Collar City” won first place at the World Press Awards for Daily Life Stories in 2009, and provided the basis for the collaborative multimedia project “Women of Troy,” our latest Notable Narrative. Here, she discusses the “Upstate Girls” project and tells what it was like to let radio producer Lu Olkowski and poet Susan B.A. Somers-Willett come into a community she had been documenting on her own for years.
Before “Women of Troy,” there was “Upstate Girls.” How did “Upstate Girls” get started?
I had been working on a long-term project in my neighborhood called “Money Power Respect,” documenting several families. When the project was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, they got a writer who also worked in that immersion-style reporting, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. She’s really terrific. We worked on that together and became very dear friends.
So when the Times excerpted Random Family in conjunction with its publication, none of the people in the book—although they had been written about extensively—had ever been photographed, and they called me to do it.
I knew about the story, I had read pieces of Random Family, but mostly my connection with Adrian was that we became friends. So I hadn’t read the manuscript in its entirety, and I didn’t realize that the family she followed had moved to Troy.
My father lived around the corner from there. When I left upstate New York—well, I left several times— I had a lot of involvement with the juvenile justice system, and I became an emancipated minor. I hadn’t gone back much.
After I photographed the family for the Times, the book came out, and Adrian moved on. Later, the oldest girl in Random Family called me and said, “One of the girls you met is my girlfriend, and we’re going to have a baby together. Would you like to photograph the birth? By the way, the baby’s father is my cousin, and he’s in jail, and his father is in jail. And so is her father—he’s been in prison her whole life—and so I’m going to step in and be the father.”
I had a conversation with Adrian, because it was her story. So we decided that I would do it, and maybe she would write about it later, maybe not. But that’s how it started. I photographed the birth and then really got to know the family of that girl that actually delivered the baby. That was the girl that made me think, “This was me if I didn’t hitchhike out of upstate New York.” I felt almost drawn back into my own childhood.
I think all the time about class, and so everything I look at has an eye to the unseen separation that we work so hard to keep in this country under the guise of being equal. And then of course, staying in Troy, I quickly got to know the young women from Random Family, and I really just followed the girls on this one block.
At what point did you get involved with Lu Olkowski and Ted Genoways, the creators of the multimedia poetry program “In Verse”?
Ted had seen my presentation of “Upstate Girls,” which is the work that this particular segment of “In Verse” was based on—work that was already done. Two summers ago at the Look Festival of Photojournalism, I presented a multimedia piece. Ted e-mailed me after and said, “I’d love to find a way to use this material.” I joked, “This is the project nobody wants, and those are the ones I never stop doing.” Ted said, “We think we could find a home for it in our magazine. We’d like to.” I was once again in foreclosure in my house, because that’s how I paid for the stuff, by refinancing. He paid me for it immediately.
The idea was at first, that we would use Virginia Quarterly Review as a way to start fleshing out this graphic novel—that’s the way I’m preparing the book. A year passed, and we had many phone meetings, but he could not get a handle on how to present the number of photographs in VQR and be true to the spirit of what I was doing. Then I got a call from Lu Olkowski, saying she was writing this grant, and Ted suggested it as a way to finally get the photographs out.
Since you had already done that work, did you head back with them when they went to Troy?
There’s no way they could have done this without me. Imagine poetry as the distilling the facts and distilling until you get to the bone, or the very essence of the bone—the bone dust. To do that in the three weeks that Susan was there would have been impossible.
Susan is an amazing poet, and she could have written poetry, but she would not have been able to get to the bone. Imagine figuring out the history and the irony of the working class and what the working class has become in the United States based on what they were told hard work would get them. Based in a city like Troy, which revels in being the home of Uncle Sam, the birthplace of the first female labor union, to get to that would take a lot longer than three weeks. And then to actually get into the bedroom of some person to be able to write about them, think how long that would take.
I don’t mean to sound like a pompous asshole. It’s really just like great reporting—if you want to report deeply and well, time is the only answer. Working this way, it’s like I was the team that went in first and got it ready. But Troy’s very difficult. I’ve worked deep, deep inner city, and I have to say Troy is much more difficult to negotiate the interior of.
In what way?
In the inner city, with MTV and the whole rap phenomenon—it’s a whole bona fide culture, I don’t discount it at all. Cameras and stardom—people in the inner city are actually very savvy about those kinds of things, because white journalists and journalists in general have been using the inner city as a template forever, since the FSA at least. So they’re very savvy. In Troy, I don’t want to say they’re clannish, but there are a few old families and they all know each other.
Also it’s the idea of accepting art is probably another layer of restriction, the idea of understanding the value of art. The inner city, even at its grittiest, gets that more than the working class Catholic community. It doesn’t recognize art the same way.
Do you worry about having your life so bound up with your subjects’? Does it make it harder to have them as subjects in your photography?
I don’t feel a conflict of interest because I’m not doing this for anybody. I know that sounds like a really stupid answer, but I think history will care, and I’m doing it for history. If you’re deep into a family history, you can almost never stop. You almost owe it to them to check in and record where they’re at. Where are you going to leave these people stuck in history?
So I don’t feel a conflict. Anything from my past or who I am that’s tied up with who they are is just like research, like years I spent in the field. I understand perfectly that for single mothers, the law is like a parent, but it’s the bad, beat-your-ass parent, lock-you-in-your-room-for-the-rest-of-your-life parent.
I do feel a conflict in loyalty. Even when Susan and Lu came, I had to take a side, and the side is always on the side of the women. Oral storytelling is a big part of the culture there, and once I show up on so-and-so’s porch, it’s already out. I have to explain what I’m doing.
Most of the women I know there are very sensitive. Since their lives are interwoven, since there’s family feuding going on, if you’re at someone’s house, your social graces have to be razor sharp so you don’t offend anyone and keep access to everyone. That kind of stuff was really hard, because when there’s another person in the mix, some of the women would say, “Well, if you’re not visiting me today, then I can see Lu.”
Was it hard to let the poet, Susan Somers-Willett, and the producer, Lu Olkowski, in on these relationships that you’d built across the years?
I’ve worked with some journalists before, and that part is always hard, because it’s the struggle between doing the work and having something down for history. You need to care about getting the work out and disseminating it in meaningful and accessible and beautiful, intelligent ways. Which Susan and Lu wanted to do, too.
In one way, getting something on public radio, NPR, and Public Radio International as a journalist that has any kind of self-preservation, I should jump at that chance. But to me it felt like an extreme intrusion. I say that in a way, because it’s a metaphor for my own experience in those bedrooms and living rooms like the ones you see in the photographs from Troy. Wanting to stay there—even those women dream of going larger, but it’s comfortable in the place that they know.
I come from that stock, so the kind of ambition that may be instilled in other photographers and some of the people in my “profession,” even the kids my kid goes to school with, there’s a sense of ambition you have to have to get anywhere—I don’t mean Susan and Lu.
I don’t have that ambition, so it was incredibly hard. I kept shooting myself in the foot all the way, yet trying to remind myself, “You need to do this. Otherwise hanging out in Troy on a porch the rest of your life is a way of not doing anything.” The work I do is what has pulled me out of the life that I look at though my camera, and yet it is the same one that pulls me back into it though loyalty to it.
[Check out our commentary on “Women of Troy” and our talk with poet Susan B.A. Somers-Willett about her work on it. Or read interviews with radio producer Lu Olkowski about this unusual collaboration and Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review on recapturing a documentary role for poetry.]